Best Ever Letter to Sports Illustrated

Today is a perfect time to post my favorite ever letter to Sports Illustrated magazine, which appeared on April 7, 1986.


The article As Nearly Perfect As You Can Get (March 3) by Jack McCallum compared Larry Bird with six basketball superstars, one of them Oscar Robertson. Comparing Bird with Robertson is like comparing apples and oranges. Bird’s role on the court is completely different from the one Robertson played, and when one realizes that, one is then able to see clearly who should be called the superior player. Robertson’s role was to shoot, pass, steal, play tenacious defense and—the most vital aspect of the game—run the offense. McCallum mentioned that Bird’s shooting range and rebounding ability surpassed Robertson’s. Why would the Big O make a 30-foot jumper when he could maneuver his way through opponents and take a better percentage shot? And if I am not mistaken, he always did just that. Rebounding is another story, because the job of a play maker is not to rebound, but to run the plays, and the job of a forward is to get the rebounds.

When a game was on the line, when the team needed two points, when there was no one else to turn to, the Big O was there. People who had the privilege of watching him in action viewed his basketball heroics as “common” phenomena. I guess that is why some people have forgotten how superior he was. I, of course, will never forget.

You will always be No. 1 in my heart, Dad!

A Father’s Day Poem


My young son pushes a football into my stomach
and tells me that he is going to run
an out-and-down pattern,
and before I can check the signals
already he is halfway across the front lawn,
approaching the year-old mountain ash,
and I turn the football slowly in my hands,
my fingers like tentacles
exploring the seams,
searching out the lacing,
and by the time I have the ball positioned
just so against the grain-tight leather,
he has made his cut downfield
and is now well beyond the mountain ash,
approaching the linden,
and I pump my arm once, then once again,
and let fire.

The ball in a high arc
rises up and out and over the linden,
up and out over the figure
that has now crossed the street
that is now all the way to Leighton Avenue,
now far beyond,
the arms outstretched,
the head as I remember it
turned back, as I remember it
the small voice calling.

And the ball at the height of its high arc
begins now to drift,
to float as if weightless
atop the streetlights and the trees,
becoming at last that first bright star in the west.

Late into an early morning
I stand on the front porch,
looking into my hands.

My son is gone.

The berries on the mountain ash
are bursting red this year,
and on the linden
blossoms spread like children.

–William Kloefkorn

Where to Find all the Movie Reviews from RBC

I am grateful to Johann for taking on film recommendation duties this month, both for the quality of his work and because it gave me a chance to update our digest of recommended films. The list is approaching 150 movies, which required me to split it into two posts in order to stop WordPress from gagging on updates.

Recently, Washington Monthly began picking up our film reviews every week. These have now also been imported into the critics section of the Internet Movie Database.

You can access the two digest posts here. I have linked in everything up to 3 months ago. For more recent recommendations, just click on the “FIlm category” on either the digest or any film review — like Johann’s fine recommendation of Cape Fear just below this post.

Happy viewing.

Understanding Swedish Snuff in a Skinny Academic Minute

Whether E-Cigarettes will be a gateway to cigarette smoking or a way for smokers to transition to a less deadly habit is the hottest debate in the tobacco control field. Similar arguments have occurred for years in Scandanavia about a form of tobacco known as “snus”.

Those are the opening lines of my piece today on the public radio program Academic Minute. Because academics talk a lot, it actually runs closer to 150 seconds.

How Scientists Came to Recognize the Benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous

Every year or so I get a call from a journalist who wants me to come on some show with “Someone who is saying that there is no evidence that Alcoholics Anonymous works!”.

I have learned to respond by asking “How much is their new book selling for?”.

Because AA is a large and respected organization, attacking it when you are trying to promote your book on addiction or your fancy new rehab center is pretty much de rigeur. But scientifically, you don’t have a leg to stand on, as I describe in my piece at Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

The average person, understandably, doesn’t realize how careful scientific research has virtually wiped out skepticism of AA and twelve-step facilitation counseling among researchers. Many scientists — including me — were skeptical of AA 25 years ago, but a series of rigorous outcome studies supporting AA’s effectiveness changed our minds. Unlike in much of popular debate, within science it is generally accepted that if your beliefs don’t accord with the data, then it is your beliefs that must change.

In an addiction research conference today, if you stood up and said that there was no evidence that AA and 12-step facilitation counseling worked, you would be viewed much the same as if you denied climate change at a meeting of atmospheric scientists. The debate over AA’s value will continue in popular culture, but that doesn’t change the reality that the scientific facts are already in and very much in the organization’s favor.

The Personal Losses of Global Warming

glacier152fbe8bff3a5fHuman-precipitated change to the environment can cause massive damage to the planet and our collective well-being. At the same time, those harms are so overwhelming in size that sometimes we can only connect emotionally to the destruction by putting it in a more personally meaningful context. For me, it’s about the loss of shared experience across generations.

My Appalachian grandfather, with whom I went on many hikes, tried repeatedly to convey to me his own childhood experience of marching through American Chestnut forests. But I could never quite grasp the grandeur of those countless majestic trees because I had never seen one. Before I was born, the careless introduction of a non-native species spread a blight that killed billions (that’s not a typo: billions with a b) of American Chestnuts. Of course the loss of all those trees had far more serious impacts, but in my own small way I grieve the loss of connection it engendered between my grandfather and me.

Oddly enough, a memory of my other grandfather, who was Canadian, saddened me when I saw this story from Rigolet, off the coast of Labrador. The town has had so much warming and snow melt that now birds who were once thought of as Southern (e.g., the heron) have come to Rigolet.

When I was a teenager, my Grandpa Jean-Paul would take me into those icy Labradoran waters in a sea kayak. The ice floes and floating glaciers were stunning (now alas, I would just be looking at lukewarm water). Now that all that is melted, I will never be able to have the same experience there with my own children, nor make them understand the remarkable experience I once had there with my Grandfather, and the lesson it taught me.

The Arctic express was howling down from the north to the point that even under my doubled, heavy gloves, my hands were so numb that I could barely hold the paddle. Without consulting my Grandfather, who was in the front seat of the kayak, I impulsively opened the Sterno can we had used to cook our lunch before we launched. It was a classically stupid teenager move, based on the assumption I could artfully light it and just get a few moments of warmth before putting it away without incident.

Unfortunately, the sea rocked the kayak and the burning Sterno can immediately tipped over, lighting the boat on fire. As my Grandfather turned around in shock, I slapped at the Sterno can in the hopes of snuffing it out but instead managed only to knock it out of my frozen, clumsy grasp, thereby spraying burning Sterno fluid across the boat’s interior, which was unfortunately oil-sealed and highly flammable. Both of us stood up to avoid being burned by the growing blaze, stamping our feet madly in a vain effort to extinguish the flames.

With the next swell of the waves, we both went overboard into the bone-chilling water. We barely got to shore in time to see the remains of the kayak being burned to a cinder. His teeth chattering, my Grandfather at least managed to convey to me an important lesson which I have never since forgotten:

You can’t have your kayak and heat it too.

Insiders and Outsiders in the Public Policy World

Nancy LeTourneau offers a thoughtful reflection on Larry Summer’s advice to Elizabeth Warren about how the world of public policy actually works. Here is Warren’s recounting:

Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

Nancy echoes Booman in her advice to progressives:

in order for liberals to actually implement progressive public policy, we have to shed our comfort in being anti-establishment and learn what it means to become the establishment.

Warren’s case supports that point. Warren’s a player in the U.S. Senate and she makes a difference there. In contrast, there is a type of leftist that will criticize those currently in power yet lack the courage to throw their own hat into the ring. People who constantly criticize public policy but never accept responsibility to implement a policy alternative when offered the chance eventually — and I think deservedly — come to be widely ignored.

That said, policy insiders often owe a debt to bomb-throwing outsiders. Would LBJ have been able to pass such strong civil rights legislation if MLK weren’t leading marches in the streets? I doubt it. Nutty, callow outsiders are disregarded, but master outsiders like King who can rally the masses give reform-minded insiders far more running room than they would otherwise have. If the windows of the proverbial smoke-filled room look out onto a hotbed of social rest, the power structure doesn’t have as much incentive to listen to reform-minded insiders, regardless of how much establishment cred they may have.

Mississippi Hops Aboard the De-Incarceration Train

Mississippi has just become the latest state to roll back overly tough criminal sentences, promote alternatives to incarceration for criminal offenders and invest in re-entry programs for former prisoners. Their reform process was similar to that of South Carolina: An independent commission was appointed to gather and analyze data, review the state’s entire approach to criminal sentencing and develop a new framework for criminal justice. The commission’s recommendations were then submitted to the state legislature, where they drew strong bipartisan support.

Some people are surprised that reducing the size of the prison population has become a priority in conservative states like South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota. But it’s a pluperfect conservative cause. The Evangelical Christian community has long been active in prisons, promoting the value of rehabilitation coupled with mercy over endless punishment. For their part, anti big-government conservatives see prisons as a massive, costly and inefficient government bureaucracy that has for too long been shielded from tough questions regarding effectiveness.

Given that the public’s fear of crime has dropped dramatically (for good reason) and liberal politicians are also generally skeptical of mass incarceration, conservative support for prison reform will help ensure that the U.S. continues on its welcome and accelerating trend away from over-incarceration.

The Epidemic of Prescription Drug Addiction and Overdose

John Buntin has a powerful piece in Governing Magazine about prescription opioid addiction and overdose. I joined John, Jennifer Smith and Harry Chen to discuss this issue on To The Point. As ever, Warren Olney skillfully kept the group conversation active and coherent. The discussion begins at 8 minute mark:

p.s. On the show I fumbled the dose relationship between Zohydro and Vicodin, which I was grateful to Warren for catching. Vicodin contains hydrocodone at 5mg and 10mg levels, whereas Zohydro contains it at 10mg to 50mg. Thus, the weakest dose of the latter is equal to the strongest of the former, and at the maximum, Zohydro is 5 or 10 times as strong as Vicodin.